The Dream and the Nightmare

The Dream and the Nightmare

“How could anyone possibly say that the October Revolution was in vain?” the poet Tvardovsky angrily told Solzhenitsyn in what now seems another age.


“How could anyone possibly say that the October Revolution was in vain?” the poet Tvardovsky angrily told Solzhenitsyn in what now seems another age. Today the Soviet rulers dismiss 1917 as the root of all evil. Indeed, toppling statues. renaming streets, rechristening Leningrad Sankt Peterburg, they wish to obliterate seventy-four years of their existence (considering the role played in the ancien régime by so many of the new anti-Communist crusaders, this preference for amnesia is understandable).

The abortive putsch precipitated the pace of events but also raised a host of question marks. Can Mikhail Gorbachev recover sufficiently to be more than a figurehead at the center? Is it possible to conceive a confederation of allegedly equal states when one of the members has half the population and nearly two-thirds of the national product? What form will the class struggle take now that Russia in particular is quickening its step on the road to capitalism, and how will the “grand duke” Boris Yeltsin and his fellow “democrats” react when they meet popular resistance? And, on the world scale, how will diplomacy be carried on now that one of the two superpowers, while remaining nuclear, accepts so ostentatiously the suzerainty of the other?

These are the questions for tomorrow. Today is one of those moments of vital change when a writer, it seems, has a duty to his readers. As the new turncoats, the Soviet vicars of Bray, prostrate themselves in front of the golden calf and listen religiously to the officiating priests in International Monetary Fund vestments, as the West’s huge propaganda machine seizes this opportunity not just to bury communism, socialism, Marxism et al. but to dismiss any opposition to the rule of capital as a form of mental aberration, he must, at the risk of repetition, overemphasis and oversimplification, state, however briefly, what in his opinion is coming to an end and what is at stake in the ideological offensive.

We are witnessing the ultimate stages of something that began as the heroic search for a historical shortcut. Very rapidly this experiment was turned into a Marxist tragedy, as the revolution failed to spread and the Bolsheviks found themselves with the rugged reality of backward Russia and the need to accomplish within a short spell what Western Europe had achieved, in no gentle fashion, over a couple of centuries. Whether what happened had to happen is a matter for speculation. “Primitive accumulation” of capital did produce Stalinism, with its bloody collectivization, its discipline imposed by the dread of the concentration camp and its Byzantine cult of the ruling demigod. But it also produced a political system that survived the Leader and proved strong enough to resist pressure for the indispensable economic reform, because that reform threatened its hold on power and privilege. Thus, after an abortive attempt by Nikita Khrushchev to alter things, the Soviet Union and its bloc lived through two decades of economic stagnation. By the time Gorbachev picked up spectacularly where Khrushchev had left off, the perestroika, or revolution from above, was probably destined to veer in a capitalist direction.

Balance sheets drawn in the moment of bankruptcy are always distorted, the liquidator concentrating on the bottom line rather than the what-went-before, the stirring story of an enterprise, and this is no exception. The tale of the past seven decades cannot be written all in black. It involves illusions and enthusiasms, heroic deeds and genuine sacrifices, mass education, the rise of the downtrodden and the wholesale transformation of society. A similar point-counterpoint is needed for the external version. It is true that Stalin turned big Communist parties with popular roots into obedient puppets, but also true that Russia’s pioneering example inspired millions throughout the world to defy their establishment. The tanks that brought the Stalinist regime up to the Elbe were the same tanks that had liberated that part of Europe from the Nazis. Even more recently, while infecting all countries that entered its orbit with bureaucratic inefficiency, the Soviet Union was also the only potential external obstacle to the expansion of American imperialism. Having been all my conscious life a stern critic of Stalin and his heirs, I find it quite easy to say that the pictures of the Soviet era now being drawn, often by former admirers or practitioners, are caricatures.

But it required the blind faith of the Stalinists yesterday and the hypocrisy of our Western propagandists today to describe this strange and sinister formation, product of specific circumstances, as Marxism incarnate and socialism on earth. It is absurd, for instance, to condemn all social and economic planning by drawing conclusions from a Soviet mechanism designed to deal with uprooted peasants and expand basic production. It is ridiculous to assert that the marketplace is the only guarantee of freedom (what about Chile? South Africa?), arguing as if the dictatorship over the proletariat practiced in the Soviet Union were a strict application of Marx’s idea of cooperation between “freely associated producers.” The third and now most fashionable propagandist fallacy, drawn from the Soviet example, is that the roads to equality and inefficiency coincide.

The egalitarianism of Soviet society was a myth. In the vulgarized Marxism the regime professed, equality was something for the very distant communist paradise, not for here and now. Egalitarianism, confused with leveling (uravnilovka), was considered a heresy. That is quite understandable, since Stalin rose to power at the head of a new elite whose privileges were emphasized by scarcity (compared with no shoes at all, three pairs of shoes are infinity).

What is true is that this elite could not develop cohesion as a class because it was being decimated by periodic purges. The only thing it wished after Stalin’s departure was security of tenure. Khrushchev, who assumed wrongly that it wanted reform, was overthrown. Brezhnev, who understood its conservatism, reigned for longer than expected. Appetite, however, grows with eating. By the end of his reign, many of the privileged wanted to insure the permanence of their status and the possibility of transferring it to the next generation. For that they required private property. After the accumulation of joys, the joy of accumulation.

The still-untold story of Gorbachev’s daring and solitude will have to be seen in this context. By 1985 all sections of the Soviet establishment were resigned to the fact that the system would have to be altered because of the deepening economic crisis. They also wanted to preserve their power and privileges. They therefore chose a reformer in their midst to perform the miracle. Gorbachev showed real vision when he assumed that economic reform would be impossible without radical political transformation. The period of glasnost–the introduction of freedoms that are no less precious because they were inaugurated by the bourgeois revolution–was exhilarating. More, however, was required if the Soviet Union was to move in a socialist direction: new forms of democracy in the workplace and the country at large, a reliance on the inventiveness of a mass movement from below. Gorbachev briefly tried to woo the workers, then gave up the attempt. Deserted by the priviligentsia, who thought that he, unlike Yeltsin. was moving too slowly toward capitalism, he found himself alone, having to rely on the traditional pillars of the regime: the party apparatus, the army and the K.G.B., which were the three instigators of the coming putsch. Yet he was clearly not their ally. With the economy crumbling as a result of the interregnum, during which old economic ties were broken and no new ones were built to take their place, Gorbachev finally opted for the I.M.F.-sponsored capitalist solution. After the London Group of Seven meeting there could be no doubt about it. Thus the futile putsch and its consequences did not really alter the direction in which the Soviet Union was moving. But it vitally changed the pace of the race and the person in the driver’s seat.

In their trial of strength last March, it was actually Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, who used the workers as a means of pressure. On reflection, that is not really surprising. To the workers Gorbachev represents the Communist Party, which is the exploiter they know. Yeltsin, cleverly parading as their supporter, represents the unknown private employer of tomorrow. However, Soviet society has been reshaped in seventy years. It now has a huge army of labor, better educated and less frightened than the uprooted muzhiks thrown into industry in the pre-war period. Clearly, as the miners’ strike of 1989 shows, the workers are already able to defend some of their immediate interests. One day, together with sections of the intelligentsia, they may be able to impose their interests as the superior interests of society. Or, to put it in the unfashionable language of young Marx, the working class is already a class-in-itself and could become a class-for-itself. In March it helped Yeltsin in his rise to power. In a future confrontation it could bring about his downfall.

For the time being, a triumphant Yeltsin enjoys the lime- light. Taking part, with Gorbachev, in the ABC Town Meeting in early September, he told a Los Angeles viewer that Communism was “a utopian idea, though a beautiful one,” and a tragedy for Russia. To prove that it was a utopia, he added, “it would have been better to conduct this experiment in a smaller country,” thus revealing the narrowness of his Stalinist upbringing. If socialism was doomed in a large backward state, the experiment would have been even more disastrous in a small backward state. On the other hand, if the revolution had spread to the advanced countries–to Germany, France and England, say–history would have taken quite a different course, something neither Yeltsin nor his TV sponsors care to admit.

Besides, utopias are not Yeltsin’s cup of tea. He clearly is not the dreamy type. Sixty years old, he belongs to the generation of pragmatists who entered politics before Stalin’s death and climbed thereafter. To rise so high, to become party boss or, if you prefer, viceroy of the industrially important area of Sverdlovsk, he had to show the qualities of a top apparatchik–ruthlessness with subordinates and sycophancy with the leader. It will be objected that at the time there was no other way to the top. But Yeltsin has since shown that he will not let his career be handicapped by principles. When Gorbachev brought him to Moscow in 1985, Yeltsin, sensing the popular mood, gained fame by expressing the plebeian resentment against privilege. Now, surrounded by economic advisers from the Hoover Institution, he proudly proclaims that today in Russia the sky is the limit to what a person can earn. What will he be saying tomorrow?

And yet, in a way, by drawing attention to the clash between the dream and the reality, Yeltsin brought us close to the heart of the matter. The days of believers are over. The shock in the outside world over the August upheaval was connected with the sudden end of an era and not with the feeling of paradise lost, as experienced by the faithful after Khrushchev’s indictment of Stalin in 1956. For years now throughout Eastern Europe the gap between promise and fulfillment has been too wide to be covered with words. Nobody could believe that the workers were masters of their factories, that democracy was really popular or that the state was withering away, not even the officials who had to pay lip service to those myths. This gap between the beautiful dream and the ugly reality explains the people’s divorce from and contempt for politics. Together with economic stagnation, and therefore the end of social advancement on a mass scale, it is one of the reasons all these regimes, including the Soviet, have collapsed with such unexpected ease. It is also the cause of the discredit of socialism, with whatever face, throughout Eastern Europe.

How deep and lasting is this undoubted rejection? A few signs are pointing in the opposite direction. Opinion polls, private conversations and complaints by priests of the new capitalist religion seem to suggest that the citizens of these countries, and particularly of the Soviet Union, find the right to work natural, unemployment absurd and the fact that a person can earn, say, a hundred times as much as another immoral. There is a sneaking suspicion that the principles preached but trampled upon rather than practiced may have somehow penetrated the popular unconscious. If so, they could come to the surface as the population, understandably dazzled by the West’s conspicuous consumption, gradually discovers, beyond the TV image and the preachings of new priests, the true nature of capitalism, especially the crude, primitive version destined for Eastern Europe. The question is important, because on the answer depends whether the outbursts and explosions that are bound to come will take a progressive or a semifascist form.

In the best of cases, a socialist resurrection will take time. Meanwhile, it is up to the Western left to carry on the battle. Having dropped the Soviet model some time ago, it must provide its own answers to contradictions crippling its own societies. But it also has a more immediate international task: It must counter the huge campaign designed to convince everybody that it is suicidal to seek a radical alternative to a capitalism that now covers the planet, a campaign launched during the 1989 upheaval in Eastern Europe and reaching its inevitable climax. That campaign is based on a disjointed syllogism: The dream is a nightmare, the nightmare is socialism and, therefore, there can be no exit from capitalist society. Stripped of the slogans about freedom and the market, the argument is based on the humiliating premises that human beings can be guided only by greed or fear and that individuals are incapable of collective action designed to create a just society. The current treatment of the Soviet experience is taken completely out of historical context. The proposition that people cannot change the system through collective action is belied by the very events of Eastern Europe.

But all this matters little. What makes this propaganda campaign powerful is its dimension, not its rationality. Reverberated by the media, it is orchestrated on a world scale, with a contingent of Soviet turncoats now joining the Eastern European chorus, Western intellectuals who are not servants of the establishment must seize every available opportunity to reveal the falsity and distortions of this propagandist score. In the process, they may soon discover new allies beyond the Elbe and, who knows, prove together that there, too, the story is not finished–that 1917, whatever the horrors that followed, was part of humankind’s unfinished, uncertain and often tragic struggle for mastery over its own fate.

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